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April 19, 2013

Flight of the Butterflies a homegrown visual adventure: review

April 12th, 2013 - Toronto Star

A short IMAX film about the monarchs’ journey, starring and narrated by Gordon Pinsent. Directed by Mike Slee. 40 minutes. Opens Friday at the Ontario Science Centre Omnimax theatre. G

It’s a story that begins and ends in Toronto and returns every year — and it’s never been so spectacularly and passionately retold until now.

Alternating between vast sweeping shots of flocks of orange butterflies and super-closeups that make the insects look more cute than gross, Flight of the Butterflies vividly tells the story of the decades-long search to find out where all the monarchs go each winter.

The film weaves together a scientific explanation of the iconic butterfly’s migration across North America and the human story of the quest to find their winter roost — and Toronto’s unique role in both stories.

It takes two generations of monarchs to complete a yearly migration up from Texas to southern Ontario each summer. Here, a special “super butterfly” generation flies back down in a single 4,000-kilometre journey to Mexico’s Michouacan state — where they gather by the millions in a dozen mountaintop sanctuaries.

It took the late Toronto-based biologist Fred Urquhart and his wife Norah almost their whole lives to figure this out, pushing them in the process to establish what might be the world’s first crowd-sourced science project. By recruiting thousands of citizen scientists across the continent, the Urquharts tagged and tracked hundreds of thousands of monarchs and began the grueling ground-level search for their winter home.

Urquhart’s quest started in Toronto, where he worked at U of T’s Scarborough campus, and as the birth site of the third super generation each year, Toronto proved to be key in cracking the monarch mystery.

When the grizzled Urquhart (played by Gordon Pinsent) finally discovers the El Dorado of monarchs, it’s both a moment of visual wonder, with countless flapping golden wings, and a scene that will have you welling up with tears.

Flight of the Butterflies is a real-life Indiana Jones tale of adventure for the sake of science with a true Canadian hero.

The film does much more than eulogize. In the Ontario Science Centre’s Omnimax Theatre, it takes you alongside the flying monarchs and immerses you in their incredible journey in a way that prompted Pinsent to remark this week following a preview screening, “I’m not the star of this film, am I?”

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